This week we are flying in the far East, but we’re doing through the eyes of a young Belgian woman, Amélie Nothomb. So welcome to Japan.
Let’s start from the title: Fear and Trembling. According to Japanese protocol, foreigners wishing to pay court to the emperor must adopt this attitude. And it is this attitude that evokes a submissive and disillusioned tone running throughout the entire book. The protagonist, Amélie embodies this attitude of fear and trembling towards Japaneses culture, language and style, but always risking to be excluded.
The setting is at the headquarter of an international Japanese firm – Yumimoto – based in Tokyo. Amélie works there as a translator, but soon has to face the rigidity of a system she never gets to completely grab or understand, and always ends up by doing the wrong thing. It’s the story of a fall, of a cruel defeat, but Amélie holds tight and doesn’t give up. She has a one-year contract and is determined to come to its end and refuses to resign in order to save her honour, a key concept in Japanese culture.
Amélie Nothomb’s writing is the product of a brilliant and subversive wit, where you never know if what you are reading is an autobiography, a satire or just some good piece of literature. Whichever the case, tt’s not only a satire and a comedy of Japanese life at work, relying on stereotypes and even reinforcing them, but a good, enjoyable and fun novel, with a delicate and lively prose. And it’s also slim enough to be read during a weekend!
How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese.
I was dumbfounded.
I beg your pardon?
You no longer know how to speak Japanese. Is this clear?
But—it was because of my knowledge of your language that I was hired by Yumimoto!
That doesn’t matter. I am ordering you not to understand Japanese anymore.
That’s impossible. No one could obey an order like that.
There is always a means of obeying. That’s what Western brains need to understand.